The way physicians search for information is evolving. The days of just ‘Googling it’ or asking the doctor next door could be numbered, as physicians begin to consult virtual assistants for information instead. Innovative and Jetsonian as they might seem, virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa represent a natural progression from the search engine and ‘phone a colleague’ strategies employed by physicians today.

The use of voice assistants for professional purposes is modest, yet interest in using them is very high among physicians.

Though interest in using voice assistants is substantial among physicians, use is modest, at 12% so far. However, with personal use at 53%, it’s a good bet that professional use will climb substantially in the next few years, as more professional applications become available and physicians get comfortable using them in clinical practice. Among those who currently use voice assistants, two-thirds use Siri as their virtual colleague – unsurprising, given how heavily physicians favor iOS devices; and half of physician users are consulting Alexa or Google Assistant in their practices, pointing towards voice assistant “Skills” as a near term solution for pharma. We know from our Taking the Pulse® 2018 survey that most physicians would likely use a pharma-provided “Skill” to check dosing, confirm product indications, request coupons/vouchers, and order samples without a rep.

Voice assistants could significantly impact the physician workflow – and short-circuit pharma touchpoints.

Voice assistants could reshape the role of pharma sales reps significantly, automating away their functions as providers of samples and disseminators of educational and financial assistance materials. These shifts would make pharma digital offerings more essential to maintaining HCP engagement. However, voice assistants cannot replace the physician-rep relationship or convey complex product information conversationally, so the rep’s role is likely to evolve rather than disappear.

Voice assistants bear exciting potential to ease physician burnout due to EHR data entry and administrative duties. Suki, an AI-powered voice assistant that launched in Q2 2018, aims to “build an Alexa for doctors” and is already in a handful of pilot programs. For now, Suki’s capabilities are largely limited to clinical notetaking, but the startup hopes to develop it to be proactive -- for example, recommending prescriptions based on a condition.

Voice assistant applications open the door to unique partnership opportunities for pharma to push content into the voice channel.

Companies like Merck and J&J have already entered the voice space with consumer-facing apps. Merck has been working with Amazon Web Services (AWS) to create “Skills” for patients living with chronic disease, and has sponsored an open challenge to developers to create a Skill to support type 2 diabetes patients. J&J created a Skill for their OTC allergy medication Zyrtec that provides personalized daily pollen reports to support allergy sufferers – while building out J&Js first-party user experience data.

Adoption of voice assistants for professional purposes is not yet mainstream, making the ROI on initiatives to build pharma-owned voice apps uncertain. However, partnering with established “Skills” may provide pharma with an accessible entry point: Drug Facts, GoodRx, and WebMD are some examples.

  • Drug Facts is a primarily physician-centric Skill that allows users to search over 100,000 drugs by name and National Drug Code, pulling from sources including DailyMed, the NLM, the FDA, and RxNav. This app can provide HCPs with highly sought-after content, including dosing information and treatment guidelines, which 58% of physicians we surveyed expressed interested in. Because this Skill allows searches by NDC, users do not have to worry about mispronouncing all those drug names. One 5-star rater of Drug Facts agrees, stating that “NDC search is better than name as there's a lot of tricky drugs but once it finds the drug, having the information read by Alexa is cool...”
  • GoodRx is a consumer-facing app popular with patients, HCPs, and pharmacists that provides financial information, pharmacy discounts, and manufacturer coupons. The Skill can play a key role at the point of prescription, allowing physicians to ask their virtual colleague to send financial assistance materials directly to a patient’s smartphone.
  • WebMD is a consumer-facing property that is familiar to patients, HCPs, and health plans alike. WebMD is also part of a larger network that includes popular HCP-focused websites like Medscape. Our Digital HCP Sources® 2017 survey found that WebMD is already among the top websites accessed by physicians across all devices. This Skill allows pharma to push branded content to the point of care through the voice assistant. When physicians ask WebMD for information about a product or treatment, the virtual assistant can pass along pharma-sponsored content.

If pharmas want to stay ahead of the voice assistant trend it is imperative that they invest in SEO and explore partnership opportunities.

Virtual assistants are finding their way into the doctor’s office, and if pharma wants to be top-of-mind, they must find a way to navigate this channel. Some of their options include:

  • Providing voice-enabled access to financial assistance materials, such as coupons and copay vouchers, with seamless mobile download functionality
  • Optimizing key clinical resources for voice (e.g., product dosing and treatment guidelines) to support physicians at the point of care
  • Employing SEO strategies to owned digital assets to capture physicians using their voice assistants with search engines
  • Capitalizing on the familiarity of consumer-facing properties to push patient education materials with search and share capabilities into the voice channel

With all the excitement around new and innovative voice applications it is easy to lose sight of the less sexy, most scalable solution: good old Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SEO strategies — schema markups, longtail keywords, sequential semantic search, etc. — are critical for pharma to remain visible in this new voice search ecosystem. SEO can expand pharma’s reach, ensuring that when someone asks, “Hey Siri…”, she will respond with branded content.

To learn more about physician use of voice search and virtual assistants, or our larger suite of patient and physician research offerings, including the Taking the Pulse® series of physician studies from Manhattan Research, contact

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